Prometheus and the Creation Myth
Some friends and I went to see a midnight showing last night. Although none of us really liked the film, we spent a long time talking about its themes and how it ties into the larger Alien saga. I found the results of the conversation to be interesting, and made me appreciate the film a lot more. Here's a sample of what we came up with.
Prometheus is about creation. Specifically, it is about the paradoxical relation between the creator and the thing created. The film is full of creator-created chains:
Engineers – Humans
Engineers – Aliens as weapons stockpile
Engineers – Aliens as bioengineered lifeform
Weyland – David
Humans – Androids
Humans – Weyland Corp.
Father – daughter
Mother – fetus
More easily come to mind. Although the creator in these pairs often identifies with the act of creation (and indeed, their position as creator is often a defining characteristic), the products thus created may resist or augment the creators intentions in unexpected ways. This tension between creator and thing created drives the entire series of films. It's the Sorcerer's Apprentice motif that has occupied science fiction since Frankenstein.
Ridley Scott's twist on the theme is that the humans in this film consciously recognize themselves as simultaneously occupying both the role of creators and thing created, and yet are unable to resolve the paradox. In fact, far from wielding power as creators, we are something of hapless puppets in the cycle. Frankenstein's monster had a very dim understanding of its own existence as a monster. In Prometheus, humanity itself is a stage in that monster's life cycle. This twist lets the film explore the dim understanding we have of ourselves instead of merely dwelling on the distruction we cause as a result. I take this to be a very bleak view of creation and thus a very bleak film, despite the superficial "success" of the protagonists escaping at the end.
Consider, for instance, that the film's plot and the primary motivation of its major characters is to "meet their makers" and find meaningful answers to their deep existential questions. At the same time, the characters explicitly recognize that they stand as creators of David, but have no deep wisdom to offer David about his existence. Indeed, they ridicule the very idea that he would worry about such questions, and consequently David has very little respect for humanity. Yet none of the humans seem willing to accept the possibility that their creators will have as little respect for them as they have for David.
Aliens are hybrid creatures that adopt characteristics of their hosts. In this way the the entire Alien Saga is in some sense a treatment on evolution. Aliens in particular deals extensively with the symbolism of motherhood and reproduction as acts of creation, and Prometheus makes strong contributions to this theme. The abortion scene is one of the highlights of the film and casts the mother motif throughout the saga in a new and interesting light.
In the abortion sequence, Dr. Shaw immediately rejects the fetus, despite her feelings about being unable to conceive, and despite the conception having been the product of an otherwise unproblematic and caring relationship. Merely rejecting the fetus doesn't eliminate the threat, of course, and although this threat proves useful later in the film (and indeed all these creations serve instrumental purposes), it is still uncontrollable and hostile. Thus the creation remains alien even to its creator.
These are the evolutionary dynamics of life according to the film. This generation's Oedipal relation to their predecessors simultaneously motivates the production of the next generation. The Aliens are the constant danger present in this cycle: the tendency of progeny to bite back. The fact that the humans function as partial "creators" in this cycle gives them no privileged power or control over its development, any more than the Engineers had control over either of their creations. Our status as gods is simultaneously our own undoing, as we undid the gods before us; godhood excuses no one from the cycle.
At the end of the film, the protagonist leaves the planet with the deliberate intention of continuing the quest to "meet the maker", but at this point there is no reason whatsoever to think such requests will be successful. Indeed, the film's status as a prequel insures that the audience knows that the quest is doomed, and moreover that engaging in the quest is merely serving the counterproductive ends of spreading the alien weapons still farther around the universe. The hubris of humans to demand answers from the Gods unwittingly perpetuates this cycle of creative destruction. Even David, the most anti-humanist of the crew, is complicit in its continuation.
Many of the characters romanticize the hubris of human beings to seek these kinds of answers. One character even answers "It's what makes me human" when challenged to justify his behavior, and that feel-good response is usually sufficient to justify most of science fiction as a genre. But if humanity doesn't occupy a privileged position in the life cycle, this uniquely human peccadillo looks more like a supersitious mistake, like Shaw's cross. Humans are so entirely caught up with their own position in the cycle that they entirely miss the larger dynamics within which their minor quests play out. This blind self-interest is the cardinal sin of creators and what primarily alienates their creations, and in these films it is completely inescapable.
Contrast the Engineer at the beginning of the film, sacrificing his life to seed the planet with his bioengineered DNA, with the humans at the end of the film, unwittingly flying a ship full of these weapons off the planet that we know will go on to cause the horror and violence in the rest of the saga. What appears heroic from the perspective of the creator is ultimately horrific for those who lay in the wake of their pursuits. This is not so much due to their creative intentions so much as an inevitable by product of them.
This is not a film about creation as an enduring and heoric aspect of the human spirit. This is a film about how the arbitrary and small-minded human spirit is just a tool in the unstoppable execution of life, that violently productive process that transcends our interests and comprehension but that we are nevertheless complicit in and accountable for.
Also the 3D was pretty sweet.